Graphic design is a competitive field because its audience is endless. Graphic design can be found everywhere from fashion to food packaging. It’s a job that, simply put, finds itself wherever anyone needs art to be shown to the public.
To get the very basics of this profession, look no further than the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, which defines the job of a graphic designer as to “create visual concepts, by hand or using computer software, to communicate ideas that inspire, inform, or captivate consumers.”
There are currently about 300,000 graphic designers in the U.S. The profession is expected to grow at 7 percent annually over the course of the next decade, which is a bit slower than for the average job. Perhaps this is because, as Rachel Gogel, creative director of T Brand Studio at the New York Times, tells me, that in the field “there are more bad designers than good ones.”
With time, those who can’t hack it all fall by the wayside. But the ones who can will find a lot of opportunities to show off their creativity.
Erik Mace is a freelance graphic designer based in Brooklyn. Both he and Gogel started out in the same way: both went to college and landed several internships along the way. Within that general path, though, there are so many variations that the two of them, both very successful in the same field, almost come from different universes. But both had one quality that’s required among successful graphic designers: persistence.
Mace says he learned a lot in college, even if he couldn’t fully appreciate it at the time.
“Art school really taught us how to be conceptual thinkers, how to think critically,” he says. “At the time, I remember thinking, ‘They’re not teaching us anything!’”
But Mace says it was the internships that gave him a technical overview of the many computer programs graphic designers find themselves using throughout the day. And on-the-job training is where he learned “every single command, every unit of measurement.”
After college, Mace moved to Chicago and got a job at a Starbucks. He contacted everyone he knew until he could put together some semblance of a client list. He eventually moved to the East Coast and set up shop in Brooklyn, which remains his base of operations.
Gogel says she left the University of Pennsylvania without a job offer, but with her heart set on graphic design. She found the perfect fit: the School for Visual Arts was hosting an intensive two-week master’s program in Italy. It gave her the chance to interact with two legends in the field: Louise Fili, famed for her food packaging and restaurant identities, and her husband, writer Steven Heller.
Gogel knew that if she wanted a job in New York, she’d have to move to the city in order to make it happen. Her time in Italy convinced her that she’d have to make the leap.
Gogel’s early days in New York were spent at a now-closed Borders, where she’d thumb through magazines, find the names of the art directors in the mastheads, and find ways to get in touch with them. Gogel ended up logging hours everywhere from GQ to Diane Von Furstenberg.
For those just starting out in the field, Gogel recommends having a strong technical background, being able to multitask, and knowing how to manage your time.
“It’s a very competitive field, so you have to take yourself seriously and believe in yourself,” she says. “Your passion and dedication will shine through. And people skills are important.”
Mace agrees, and also encourages flexibility, crucial in a profession where you’re not necessarily drawing the things you’d like. In addition, Mace stresses the value of good listening skills, keeping your cool, and understanding that your job is helping other people execute their visions.
“If your client wants something and you think it is going to be terrible, don’t overreact,” he says. “If you need a day or two to think about it, to reason it out, do that. Losing your cool is not a good thing.”
He reminds those starting out in the business that clients are often working on projects that are “very, very personal to them.”
“It’s a business they started, something they worked on,” he says. “Now it’s your turn to help them with that. It’s fraught with potential, fragile emotions. So being part-therapist is crucial.”
Photo credit: Juhan Sonin/Flickr